Is Fantasy Really Escapism?

Of course it is, but is it the most escapist? A recent blog post by Anne Hamilton (which was part of Helen Lowe’s blog tour for the launch of The Heir Of Night) got me thinking about this subject again. In that post, Anne says:

When I was growing up, SFF was generally derided as ‘escapist’. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘realistic’ fiction is far more deserving of that title. It’s ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade. It doesn’t transcend its own culture or time or deal with anything beyond the superficial. However the best of SFF – fantasy, in particular – engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny.

That’s a great quote. But how accurate is she? I’d suggest that she’s revealed a rarely considered truth.

She says that non-genre fiction, or ‘realistic’ fiction as she calls it, is “ephemeral and transient, rarely lasting to the end of a decade”. It’s true that non-genre fiction, slice of life stories, often date very quickly. But I dispute that that makes them any less relevant. Take a classic like To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee as an example. That book is a masterpiece, a beautifully crafted story with fantastic characters. Pretty much everything about it is still relevant today and it explores some very important concepts. I don’t think a book like that is transient or short lived. I do think it’s escapism though, however much it makes us look at ourselves and question how we might react in a similar situation.

Other non-genre work might date and age more quickly, becoming largely irrelevant beyond an interesting peek into days gone by. Science fiction, however, is way more likely to date very quickly. At the speed of technological advancement we’re currently experiencing, you can start writing a sci-fi novel and the concept is no longer sci-fi by the time you type “The End”.

So why am I suggesting that Anne Hamilton is right? Most non-genre fiction is looking at the trials and tribulations of people whose lives are very similar to our own. They live in the same world, the same time, more or less, and have similar concerns. When we read about those lives it’s pure escapism because those people aren’t us. We might wonder what we’d do in a similar situation, but that’s about it.

When you start to look at SFF, particularly fantasy, you open up doors not available in contemporary non-genre fiction. You get to explore the human condition within a mythic framework where anything goes. As much as stories like this are the wildest kind of escapism, they also serve to hold a mirror up to humanity as a whole. While a story about a white suburban family’s social wranglings might make a white suburban reader consider their own life, a good science fiction story will make us consider humanity as a species. Good SFF takes us on a journey not only of personal exploration but beyond ourselves to our culture and identity.

Of course, non-genre fiction can do these things too, but nothing does it so well or with as much scope as SFF.

Ever since people could speak they told stories. Stories about real people was gossip. Stories about life were myths. Myths are the original fantasy epics. Every race has its creation myths – these great mysterious stories from beyond the human, trying to answer the massive questions about why we’re here and where we come from. Of course, just because we can ask those questions doesn’t mean there’s an answer. Religion is built on the concept that there’s an answer for every question we can ask, and there’s nothing more human than that kind of arrogance. And religion is just where people take a lucky dip of all the great myths and decide completely arbitrarily (though usually by birth) that one is the absolute truth while all the others are funny stories. Which is astounding. But I digress.

With mythology we can escape the boundaries of real life and explore those great big questions far more deeply than we ever can with non-genre fiction. That’s what makes non-genre stuff pure escapism while fantasy is much more. SFF often addresses far bigger questions and concerns than non-genre fiction ever does. Of course, the lines are very blurred and all fiction is escapism. Good fiction is escapism that makes you think. Nothing makes you think more, in my opinion, than good SFF. As Anne Hamilton said, it “engages in a struggle with name and thus with identity and destiny”.

Caveat: I know this is likely to be a fairly contentious post, with people citing many examples to back up one side of the argument or the other. Most arguments find their truths somewhere in the middle, but bring it on. Leave your comments with your thoughts. I’ve written this with a purely rambling mind while I thought about the subject and I’m very open to others’ thoughts on it.


This is a reprint from Alan Baxter‘s The Word.